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High Altitude - Chapter 1

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Kathmandu, Nepal

December 1, 2013

11 PM

Suman, my guide for the trek, picked me up at the airport. Tribhuvan International Airport. 

In the darkness, he almost blended in completely, and as I shook his hand I thought of how little I knew about his country and culture. I’d expected everyone here to look Mongolian, like the Chinese, but Suman looked East Indian. Dark skin, short hair, he couldn’t have been more than 5’7 but stood tall, and even by cover of night, in weathered jeans and a thin navy jacket, I could tell how sinewy he was. And so skinny. It felt as if a plate of food appeared in front of him, he’d wolf it down on the spot. He had a wispy goatee, and an air of quiet dignity.

We drove away in a battered jeep, on rough roads with debris, potholes, not a streetlight for miles, passing dark-skinned men appearing out of nowhere, car lights momentarily illuminating before blending them back into the night. Some huddled around open fires. Just like in Depression-era America. Back then, we had FDR and a burgeoning infrastructure. What do these people have?

While we drive, Suman schools me about the caste he belongs to: the Chhetri, the brave ones. Warriors who played a key role in the unification of these high altitude kingdoms, making up a strong presence in the police and army. Today Nepal is a parliamentary republic, but still with a nominal monarchy.

“Second-highest caste in Nepal,” Suman says proudly.

I didn’t know the caste system was still in existence in the Indian subcontinent. I’d read up a little before my trip, but there are many blanks to fill. In November there were elections here. The Maoists lost, but they claimed that the ruling party tampered with the vote. Five years ago Nepal ended a bloody civil war between those Maoists, once mountain partisans, and the ruling monarchy. The bad blood didn’t end when the fighting ended, even if the monarchy stepped down and a pseudo-democracy was pieced together, with a congress made up of dozens of ethnic groups and political parties.

When I asked about the alleged voter fraud, Suman shook his head, smiled, and told me it wasn’t true. Angry after losing, the Maoists lied. He seemed more interested in getting a read on me than discussing politics.

“Where are you from,” he asked. “United States?”

“Yes. California.”

“California? Wow. Nice place?” I was just as much a curiosity to him as he was to me. “Why did you come to Nepal? Why are you going on the trek?” 

I only knew him for a few minutes but already I liked his high-pitched laugh, and trusted his darting coffee colored eyes. At last the car emerged from darkness. The capital, Kathmandu, sprawled out before me, nestled in the foothills of the world’s highest mountains, the Himalayas. Home to 2.5 million, with 57% surviving on less than $2 a day. Endemic malnutrition, almost nonexistent healthcare. Out of 24 hours, 14 are without power, turning the country back to a medieval land of candles and kerosene fires. 

Coming from California, one of the richest places on Earth, I’m not uncomfortable, but I’m aware.

We pass bars, live dance spots with signs and pictures of scantily-clad women. Men of all colors roam the streets. Westerners in shorts stand next to armed military police. This section of the city is Thamel. It’s full of tourist shops, cheap hotels, knock-off North Face gear, and girls. This is the city’s red light district, a major contradiction in a Hindu-dominated country where most still wait for marriage to have sex -- arranged marriage at that.

The car pulls up to a building of tin and cement, with an armed guard patrolling. More compound than hotel. “Access Nepal,” it is aptly named. I step out of the car and feel the cold air hit my face. Suman offers to help me carry my bags but I tell him I’ll manage. Tomorrow we’ll meet and discuss the trek, he tells me. We shake hands and he’s off. 

I’m alone, in Kathmandu. 

Seconds later, in my hotel room, the third world hits. I try the lights but they don’t work. Then I realize I have to place my key card in the wall switch. The lights and a tired overhead fan come to life and I see the stains on the sheets and on the walls. There’s a small bed, tiny bathroom, and slippers that look used, thoughtfully left in front of the toilet. There’s a dresser, a coffee pot. I see my reflection in an out-of-place flat screen TV. I look exhausted. I hesitate to take my shoes off and step barefoot on the grey tile. Two strides take me from the door to the window. It’s cold, and yet stuffy, so I open the window and face down into the street.

Led Zeppelin plays somewhere below. Stairway to Heaven, loud, out of unseen speakers. It sounds like someone’s partying out there. I didn’t know where to look.

It’s almost midnight now and the music dies down momentarily only to pick back up, screams and whistles rewarding someone’s favorite song. Looking out the window, my tired eyes lock onto a flickering neon-draped building. It seems to beckon to me. But not tonight. I’m too tired, I’ve been in too many time zones. I kick aside the slippers and step into the shower. The shower’s working, but the water will not get hot no matter which way I turn the knob. I step out of the shower and try the sink, and I end up washing just my face with icy cold water. I undress and pause before making contact with the bed: there are dime-sized dark stains on the top sheet. Blood? I throw the sheet to the floor, put my jacket back on and ease into the bed.

I’m between worlds. At the end of the world, and yet at the beginning. Touched by the West, yet for now as far East as possible.

I can hear Zack de la Rocha rising up from the street as I hop out of bed, take out the key and kill the lights. I lie back down and try not to think about the stains on the bed sheet. Big Zack keeps on singing, “Rally round tha family! With a pocket full of shells...”

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